I just finished reading a memoir from the war in Southeast Asia: “100 Missions North: A Fighter Pilot’s Story of the Vietnam War,” by Ken Bell (Brassey’s, Inc. 1993). During Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68), 100 missions (known as ‘counters’) over North Vietnam completed a combat tour. Then Major Ken Bell did this in nine months from October 1966 through July 1967 flying the F-105 Thunderchief as part of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing from Takhli Air Base, Thailand.
Bell’s memoir is well written and thrilling at times. Rolling Thunder was a tough campaign and losses were quite heavy. More than 350 “Thuds,” half of the Air Force’s inventory, were brought down in those three years. While some of the ejecting pilots were rescued, most were killed or captured. Heavy enemy air defenses from guns, SAMs, and MiGs, coupled with rotten weather and rugged terrain, accounted for the heavy losses.
Several things occurred to me as I read this account, comparing my experience in combat five years later and the current air war against ISIS over Iraq and Syria. First, I was reminded of how critical timing is. The enemy concentrates its defenses over the most important targets. The attacking force wants to minimize its exposure over the target and risk from those heavy defenses. It was not uncommon to put 20-30 attacking Thuds over a target in less than a minute. With the technology available a half century ago, that kind of TOT (time over target) control required remarkable airmanship.
Today with precision weapons, digital computers, and precise navigation tools, that type of precision is easier but no less important than in Ken Bell’s day. I reminded a young 20 year old this weekend of the importance of military timing when he kept me waiting for 28 minutes for a rendezvous to attend a football game. While the result wasn’t catastrophic, the discipline is irreplaceable.
Another thing that “100 Missions North” reminded me of was the critical role of ROE – rules of engagement. Fighter pilots flying from Thailand against targets in North Vietnam were constantly restricted by seemingly senseless ROE emanating from pencil-pushers half a world away in the Pentagon and White House. It resulted in poor targeting and higher casualties. As one Thud pilot said upon his return from six years as a POW, “we weren’t trying to fight with one hand tied behind our back; we had both hands tied.”
That’s what happens when political considerations outweigh military ones. I experienced the same problem during combat flying in 1972, and the same is true today in the so-called air battle against the Islamic State. When the Obama Administration reluctantly began the air campaign to pin-prick ISIS, they told the air planners in the Pentagon that no civilian casualties or collateral damage would be tolerated. The burden has been intolerable. Three out of four bombing sorties return home with unexpended ordinance thanks to overly restrictive ROE.
Another hidden lesson in Bell’s memoir is how utterly stupid the targeting was. Every Tuesday during the three years of Rolling Thunder, President Johnson would meet for lunch in the White House with SECDEF Robert McNamara and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler. These three men who had zero experience in planning a military air campaign would painstakingly select targets for the coming week. Their choices weren’t designed to defeat the North Vietnamese or win the war but rather, to send a political message to the Communist leaders that the damage was unacceptable and a truce was warranted. Ho Chi Minh and the Politburo laughed at our naiveté and prosecuted the war by their rules.
I have experienced the same disillusionment and I know our Air Force and Navy pilots flying in the Persian Gulf today are equally frustrated. From their vantage point in the sky, they see obvious targets that would cripple ISIS, but the rules imposed by this administration prevent their attack. The French and Russians, stung by recent attack from the terrorist state, are not nearly as sensitive as we are and may be showing the way by attacking meaningful targets. We’ll see. From the perspective a half century, this old warrior acknowledges that, while technology has given the modern fighter pilot more and better tools to wage an air campaign, political will always seems to get in the way. Some things never seem to change.